Theater: Holiday Cheer

‘A Christmas Story’ lifts spirits

In case you haven’t noticed, or have gone into hibernation to evade the fallout from the multiple disasters (political and otherwise) occurring in this country and abroad, we’re in the midst of what is now called the “holiday season.” Beginning a few days before Thanksgiving and terminating a week or so after New Year’s Day, its length and emphasis on food, drink and other material pleasures rivals, or surpasses, the great pagan festivals of ancient Greece and Rome.

Christmas, its centerpiece, once had at least some religious content in the U.S., given that we’re nominally a Christian nation and many of our pilgrim ancestors came here precisely because they wanted to freely celebrate the birth of Christ. That motivation is gone, probably forever. Our increasing secularization is clearly evident in the “holiday shows” mounted by local theaters. Sometimes, moral issues replace the religious themes, as in staged versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi and the popular film It’s a Wonderful Life. Sometimes they simply aim to lift our spirits by looking on the good side of things for a change—especially when it comes to family relations.

A Christmas Story: The Musical, currently running at the San Francisco Playhouse, is a great example of the latter. It has no religious or overt moral content. What it does have is an endearing all-American tale of a young boy’s dream of receiving a special Christmas gift, and the series of disappointments he encounters.  

The plot is based on the 1983 movie, with elements that were derived from semi-autobiographical scripts written by radio personality Jean Shepherd. Twenty years later, it became a musical with a book by Joseph Robinette; music and lyrics are the work of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the team behind the recent hit movie La La Land. Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano directs, ably assisted by music director Dave Dobrusky and choreographer Kimberly Richards.

As in the radio broadcasts, the adult Jean Shepherd (played here by Christopher Reber) is the narrator. He recalls a Northern Indiana Christmas in 1940, an era immortalized by Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers extolling America’s idealized families. Like most 9-year-olds (myself included), his fictional son Ralphie (Jonah Broscow) dreads receiving “practical” gifts like clothing, when what he urgently wants is a genuine carbine action, 200-shot Red Ryder BB gun. To achieve this goal, he hounds his parents during the month leading up to the big day, but is rebuffed by his father (Ryan Drummond, known as the The Old Man) with the excuse that he might accidentally shoot his eye out, a warning repeated by his mother (Abby Haug), his teacher (Katrina Lauren McGraw) and even the Santa (Ken Brill) he visits at a neighborhood department store.

Ralphie’s campaign for the BB gun is not helped by a number of incidents in which, despite good intentions, he gets into trouble. These include joining a group of schoolyard bullies when they use a “triple dare’ to persuade another boy to lick a metal pole in freezing weather, which (to their vast amusement) leaves the boy’s tongue attached. He also has the bad judgment to use a forbidden profanity, something his father does daily with carefree abandon.                 

Eventually, though, the big day arrives, presents are opened and just when all hope appears to be lost—voila!—The Old Man hands him a long rectangular package.  

There is also a subplot involving delivery of a lamp in the form of a fishnet-stockinged, high-heeled female leg that The Old Man won in a mail-in contest and now insists on displaying in the living room window. Like the main plot, it is really only part of a framework for the song and dance numbers that are the heart of the show. While most are well-executed, taken separately they are not particularly memorable. Taken together, however, they combine to make A Christmas Story: The Musical, enjoyable holiday entertainment.

NOW PLAYING: A Christmas Story: The Musical runs through January 13 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St. (2nd floor of the Kensington Park Hotel), San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

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